Divisions within liberalism

Föreläsning vid Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Yale University,  8 April 2010


Svante Nycander

To make it easier to follow my presentation, I will tell you what I am going to do. I will first describe an early division within liberalism. Then I will move on to more modern times and try to show that this division has remained important. I will give two examples, first a famous dispute between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s with important implications for the role of the news media, and then the conflicting views among liberals about the proper relationship between capital and labor, employers and unions.


I guess that you have all heard the expression “classical liberalism” – without any further explanation. I believe that those who use those words are the victims of an illusion, because if you read the most important liberal philosophers from John Locke to John Stuart Mill you will find that liberalism already at that time was much diversified and contained many contradictions.


There is an important difference between the liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment and the liberalism that became important in Europe after the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Liberalism in the 18th century was founded by John Locke. Its most important theory is about natural human rights, which Locke derived from secular reason. In the state of nature everyone has the right to protect his own person, his life, liberty and property against an offender, actually a right to punish. Locke called it the right to execute the law of nature. When the people adopted a social compact by general consent and entered political society they made it the duty of the Government to protect the individuals and to punish offenders. If the Government violated the compact, the individual resumed his former right to execute the law. According to Locke everyone is entitled to kill a tyrant, as you kill a wild animal.

In the political situation of the late 17th century, this was a revolutionary theory. Locke legitimized the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Locke was the Karl Marx of his time. The American historian Joyce Appleby has said that the driving force of the early liberals was outrage – outrage against tyranny, privilege, censorship, serfdom and arbitrary power.


After all the wars and bloodshed in the wake of the French revolution liberalism in Europe became very different. Liberals in the 19th century favored reconciliation and political stability, they were reformers between revolutionaries and reactionaries, and they wanted to preserve the modernization of society that had taken place after 1789. Also from a philosophical point of view they were different from the liberals of the Enlightenment. They were influenced by Immanuel Kant and German romanticism, and also by Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hegel as sharp-eyed critics of liberalism. Liberalism became eclectic, a mixture of various elements. 


This happened in Europe. But in America the Lockean human rights-liberalism was preserved in the shape it had at the time of the Declaration of independence, the Constitution and the Bill of rights. It did not meet strong competition from other schools of political thought. There was in America nothing like the Tory tradition in England with roots in feudalism, monarchy and clerical power. And there was nothing like the European Jacobinism, which kept alive the ethos of social revolution from the most radical period of the French revolution. Enlightenment liberalism became the America Faith. It was both an ideal and a national self-image – a view of America as a free republic with equal rights for all. The word feudalism was popular. The absence of feudalism was what distinguished America from Europe.

What liberalism in America had to overcome was not conservatism or socialism but rather classical republicanism, but that was no longer a viable philosophy. America was already too modern.  


The historian Louis Hartz wrote a book, “The Liberal Tradition in America”, in the1950s. He said, “Locke dominates American political thought, as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation”. And he said that there has never been a liberal movement or a real liberal party in America. In a certain sense liberalism was “a stranger in the land of its greatest realization and fulfilment”. Hartz wrote about an irrational Lockeanism, a kind of liberal absolutism, which had become known to the world as Americanism. He wrote the book under the impression of McCarthyism.


A kind of absolutism was present already in John Lockeęs own writings – the absolutism of a revolutionary theory.


So, early liberalism is different from later liberalism, and American liberalism is different from liberalism in Europe. Still there are some principles all liberals hold in common:


One such principle is secularism. The first liberal breakthrough was when it became possible during and after the renaissance to write about the physical world, about nature and the planets, without religious censorship. The next stage was when secularism was accepted also in studies of man and society. Niccoló Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes were the most shockingly Godless of these philosophers.



  A second point is individualism, which is almost the same as universalism. Both reject a collectivism that prescribes not only how individuals must behave but also what they should believe and feel. Nationalism is the most obvious example.


A third point is constitutionalism, the rule of law. Public power must be controlled, the authorities must be held responsible. This idea is linked to the distinction between state and society. Where this distinction is absent, as in feudalism and in utopian socialist thought, there is no room for constitutional government.


My last point is that all liberals recognize that the market economy is to some extent self-regulating and capable of producing great wealth. In Adam Smiths days the transition to a market economy presupposed a radical reorganization of society. The state had to be limited in its scope, but at the same time the state must have a monopoly on coercive power.  Constitutionalism and the market economy made the same demands on the organization of public power.


So far, I have not used the word freedom. Thatęs a difficult word, like justice – everyone is in favor, nobody against. Lord Acton found 200 definitions of liberty. But freedom is a necessary element of each of the four liberal principles. Secularism and universalism implies intellectual freedom, they reject the supremacy of the church or of any other collective body.  Constitutionalism implies political freedom. And, obviously, the market economy has much to do with personal freedom.




  In my view Immanuel Kant was more important than any other person in leading liberalism in a new direction after the French revolution. As a moral philosopher he opposed the ideas of the Enlightenment. John Locke, the French encyclopaedists, and Jeremy Bentham believed that human beings are by nature incurable egoists. Every human motive is only self-interest in disguise. Their view of man was deterministic and mechanistic, and their understanding of society was much inspired by the natural sciences, in particular physics. The ethical theory that grew from this philosophy was based on the idea of enlightened self-interest.


Immanuel Kant rejected this pseudo-ethic. He postulated that human beings have a free will. He didnęt state this as a fact. But he thought that we must believe in such freedom, otherwise there is no important difference between human beings and animals. He derived the moral law from human reason, not from religion. That was a secularist breakthrough in moral philosophy and a challenge to the authority of the Church. It has been said that Kantęs ethical theory is the greatest contribution of philosophy to liberalism ever.


Kant had an idea about international peace. In his time and during the 19th century it was taken for granted that a permanent international peace must be based on a stable balance of power between the states. Kant objected that a house could be so neatly balanced that it falls down if a sparrow lands on its roof. In 1914 a sparrow landed on the house of Europe in the shape of a gunshot in Sarajevo. Kantęs own theory was that permanent international peace presupposes that every state has a republican form of government. Today we would say a democratic form of government. In Kantęs days this was only a theory, today we know that he was right. Democratic nations never go to war against each other.


One of Kantęs important political ideas was about property and ownership. John Locke had said that a man belongs only to himself, in the law of nature. Therefore a man is the owner of what he produces with his own hands. If he cultivates a piece of virgin soil this becomes his property, and he can increase his wealth through exchange and trade. Kant objected that in the state of nature there can be no ownership, only possession, because ownership is conditioned by the laws of society. Where there is property, there is also a complicated system of legislation and precedents.


In Lockeęs philosophy ownership is a relationship between a person and an object, while Kant saw ownership as a relationship between human beings in society, regulated in a way that is generally accepted. That makes a great difference. And I think it is fair to say that the American tradition is more close to Locke, while the European liberal tradition is more close to Kant. 


We should keep these two philosophers in mind when I now turn to something else.


Until late in the 18th century it was generally believed that political freedom and a republican form of government is possible only in a small state, like ancient Athens and Rome and the medieval city-states in northern Italy. A large state, an empire, can have an advanced civilization but not a popular government. The first political philosopher who thought differently was, as far as I know, James Madison. He thought that the people is the only source of political authority and that the United States of America must be a free and genuine republic, without the strong elements of monarchy and aristocracy that were advocated by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. The government must be the expression of the will of the whole society, not only of the will of a power elite.


Madison believed that even a large nation with a population spread over a continent could be a community, strong enough to support truly republican institutions. Improved communications and newspapers with a large readership would make such a community possible. Madison was much influenced by European ideas about the role of public opinion. Alexander Hamiltonęs idea was very different. He thought that rise in production and trade would reduce discontent and make the dominance of a ruling elite politically stable.


A hundred years later the combination of popular government and capitalism brought a great deal of disillusion about democracy, in America and elsewhere. In the 1920s two important liberal philosophers, Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, analysed the relationship between the state, the electorate and the public interest in a way that has seldom been surpassed. Lippmann wrote two books: “Public Opinion” in 1922 and “The Phantom Public” in 1927. Deweyęs book “The Public and its Problems” in 1927 was, obviously though only implicitly, a retort against Lippmann.


Both of them accepted the modern industrial society without reservations, and they were both greatly influenced by the philosophy of pragmatism. Lippmann wrote that political ideas should be tested by trial and error, he praised the “experimental method in social science”. Dewey called his own philosophy “experimentalism”. Both painted a dismal picture of democracy as it was in America in the 1920s. A series of progressive electoral reforms – like open primaries, popular elections of senators and judges and women suffrage – had not in fact increased the political influence of ordinary people. The turnout in elections had gone down since the 1880s, both major parties were run by “political machines”, the power of large corporations seemed limitless. The people were the source of authority only in theory.


The word “public” was the starting point for both Lippmann and Dewey. What is the proper role in a democracy of the general public and of public opinion? Here the two philosophers differed.


Lippmann thought that the Progressivist view of democracy was founded on an illusion. The general voter will never have the necessary knowledge and understanding to make good political decisions. The issues are too many and too complicated; information in the media is fragmented, superficial and biased. The competence to make good decisions is to be found mainly among the insiders in the executive sphere. Those who vote in general elections will always remain outsiders. Therefore the political role of the general public should be strictly limited. The voters should not be expected to take sides in specific political issues, instead they should try to find out which party or which political leaders are most likely to establish a modus vivendi, a mutual understanding between different views and interest groups. To vote for those in office when things go well and to vote for the party in opposition when things go badly is “the essence of popular government”, according to Lippmann. In his theory there was hardly any room for values, other than modus vivendi and social order. He said nothing about justice, human rights or the common good.


The Progressive movement in America claimed that the people represent the public interest against all the separate interests. Lippmann objected that this was “naēve democratic sentimentalism”, based on the belief in a mystical entity called the Society, the Nation or the Community. In fact what we have to deal with are only networks of social relations.




Exactly at this point John Dewey thought differently. The society and the public is not a fiction or a mask before private demands for power and positions. It is true that wishes, ideas and purposes exist only in individuals, but their content and object are not necessarily personal or private. What people think and what they wish is shaped by their mutual relationships. Human beings can develop a true public spirit, a commitment to the common good.


Both Lippmann and Dewey thought that the social sciences should be a major force in shaping a well-ordered modern society. Lippmann wanted to “interpose some form of expertness between the private citizen and the vast environment in which he is entangled”. He suggested that every department in Washington should have an independent “intelligence bureau” as a link between the administration and the congress as a means “to overcome the central difficulty of self-government, the difficulty of dealing with an unseen reality”.


These bureaus should have two purposes. They should provide social research and expert evaluations as a service to insiders and decision-makers and at the same time help ordinary citizens to grasp the real character of political issues. But the emphasis was on the needs of the insider. Lippmann wrote:


“The purpose, then, is not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push that burden away from him towards the responsible administrator. An intelligence system has value, of course, as a source of general information. - - - But that is secondary. Its real use is as an aid to representative government and administration both in politics and in industry. This demand for the assistance of experts - - - comes not from the public, but from men doing public business, who can no longer do it by the rule of thumb.” Alexander Hamilton would have agreed one hundred percent in this elitist vision of popular government.


John Deweyęs idea was more optimistic and also more interesting. He saw the problem that had been seen also by James Madison: By what means can a Great Society be made a Great Community, where the common man is involved in the problems of society not only because of his special interests but as a person with an idea of the public good?


Dewey had a specific definition of the word “public”. He said that the public consists of all people who are affected by the indirect consequences of various transactions and changes in society in a way that causes real problems. He thought of people whose jobs are threatened by the business cycles or who are exposed to unhealthy pollution. Dewey said that the main difficulty in a modern democracy is to take in and to understand the complicated chains of causes and effects in society. Where important changes look haphazard, inexplicable and threatening to ordinary people, the Great Society will not be a Great Community – what he called “an including, in brotherhood united public”.


Dewey, like Lippmann, saw at least a part of the solution in social science and expert knowledge. But to him it was far from enough to supply better factual information for the insiders in government and industry. He believed hat social science had a potential to bring people together in a common understanding of the causes of the problems in society and of the possible solutions. When Dewey wrote this in 1927 his idea must have seemed utopian, because the social sciences were then in their infancy. There were few researchers, there was a lack of basic data, and methods and theories were crude.  The news media in those were unfit to evaluate and to edit information of this kind. So there were obvious objections to Deweyęs vision of a modern democracy. His most recent biographer Alan Ryan is not impressed. In his view Deweyęs theory is naēve.


I think that Deweyęs arguments are important. When we say community instead of society we tend to think of something emotional – feelings of shared values, patriotism, personal ties to the culture, traditions and religion of a certain place. The Germans say Gemeinschaft instead of Gesellschaft to make the same point.


But Dewey saw a community more in terms of shared understanding and knowledge, something intellectual rather than emotional. The social sciences can make our images of politics, industry and finance, the labor market, education, the media, the welfare systems and the administration of justice more alike and make public discussion about common problems more rational. The room for prejudice, arbitrary opinions and dangerous simplifications can thus be diminished. 


But this can happen only if there are the means to report the findings of social research to the public. Lippmann and Dewey were dissatisfied with the news media of the 1920s, and there are reasons to be unhappy also today. High quality newspapers are fighting an uphill battle, the structure of the Internet

does not promote common knowledge and understanding, quite the opposite. But it is too early to assess the long term effects of the electronic revolution. Basically it is a good thing that it has become much easier and cheaper to make information available to the public. The interplay between demand for information and supply of information will always be important, regardless of the technology. People who really want serious, correct information are in a better position today than they ever have been. And advertisers will always need attractive news media for commercials, but we donęt know what kind of media structure will emerge from the present turmoil.




An increasing demand for information based on social research is a pattern in a modern society. Such information is often interesting news. Social research can be made good reading, public discussion is often based on the findings of research about the causes of bad health, crime, inequality, segregation, unemployment and economic problems of all sorts. Opinion polls in particular are popular.


I read two Swedish national dailies. For about a week I made a note of every piece of news that was based on social research. Some of these pieces came from the universities, others came from research departments of various authorities and organizations. Many were little more than simple statistics.


On an average there were three to four news stories a day of this kind in each newspaper. I cannot say that John Deweyęs vision has been confirmed by this little study. If I had done the same thing ten or twenty years ago, I think that the harvest would have been greater and more convincing. The national newspapers in Sweden suffer from a poor economy and are reducing their staffs.


Like Britain and many other European countries Sweden has public service radio and television without commercials. It is payed for by a kind of tax on listeners and viewers. These media are protected from government pressure and are regarded as independent. In particular the radio is today a high quality institution with a national audience.  It has more money and staff than any newspaper. Radio channel 1 comes close to John Deweyęs vision of the media in a democratic community. 




In the long run, universities and research institutes are more important than the media. No doubt they could make the results of their work more of a common knowledge. Universities could make their web sites a kind of news media, if they are ready to use professional journalists for the task. Perhaps that is already happening in America?


A few more words about Lippmann. His idea that politics has only one fundamental purpose, to achieve a modus vivendi, is close to the conception of politics as power brokering, that became popular in American political science in the 1930s. Lippmann has often been mentioned together with Harold Lasswell, who wrote the book “Politics: Who gets What, When, How” in 1935. Special interests are at the core of politics.


Later in his life Lippmann abandoned his moral scepticism. In a book in 1955 he praised the liberal fathers of the 18th century for their “doctrine of natural law”, a law that is above the ruler and the sovereign people. This was a complete reversion of his earlier position. But he still had little confidence in the voters and in public opinion. He wrote: “Where mass opinion dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern.” Lippmann called this a breakdown in the constitutional order and a decline of Western society.


Both in the 1920s and in the 1950s Lippmann belonged to the Lockean mainstream in America. Locke used the idea of  “the law of nature” to make the pursuit of private interests legitimate. The concept is almost empty from a moral point of view. The problem that puzzled Locke – and Lippmann – was how to make the pursuit of individual happiness mutually acceptable among all individuals. It had much to do with the need for a modus vivendi.


It is well known that John Dewey was deeply influenced by German philosophers, in particular Kant and Hegel. His dispute with Lippmann confirms the difference between two philosophical schools – the human rights liberalism of the Enlightenment and the eclectic liberalism of the 19th century.


Now I turn to my last point.


As you know Peter eight years ago published “Capitalists against Markets. The Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden”. It is a great and innovative book, with a masterly treatment of a mass of historical documents and data. Few Swedish scholars have said so many interesting things about the Swedish labor market and our welfare policies.


A few years before that, I wrote a book about America. Its title, translated from Swedish, is “The War Against the Unions. A Study of the American Model”. Robert Reich, Bill Clintonęs Secretary of Labor, had said that there was a war against the unions in the Reagan years. So Peter and I have a common interest in labor relations, and that’s why we came to know each other. We have both compared America and Sweden in this respect.


The American Civil War was followed by a period of laissez faire-capitalism. At the same time economic policies in Sweden were extremely liberal. In both countries workers started to organize, and industrial action became common, in particular from the 1890s. But there was one important difference. In America state intervention in industrial conflicts became more or less the order of the day. Until 1932 the judiciary, in particular the federal courts, were in control of the rules in the labor market, and most of them were anti-union. From 1877 to 1903 military forces were used against strikers in about 500 labor disputes. Hundreds of workers were killed.


The Supreme Court ruled in 1894, after the Pullman strike: “The strong arm of the national government may be put forth to brush away all obstruction to interstate commerce or to the transportation of the mails. If the emergency arises, the army of the nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the nation to compel obedience to the laws.”


I will quote three well-known labor historians. William Forbath says: “Judge-made law and legal violence limited, demented, and demoralized workersę capacities for class-based social and political action.” Melvyn Dubofsky says: “The policies and actions of the state substantially shaped the history of working people and the movements that they built.”  And Victoria Hattam: “A strong judiciary created a politically weak labor movement in the United States.”


This happened in the early, formative period. The Great Depression brought new legislation and a new political climate that favored the labor unions, but since about 1970 both legislators and the courts have returned to the earlier tradition of repression, and the unions are again notoriously weak. Less than ten per cent of all employees belong to unions.


American scholars have found that “among those with a high school education or less, belonging to a union adds nearly 20 percent to turnout levels [in elections] over those who do not belong”. So state policies against the unions have diminished workersę political participation and influence.



In Sweden, laissez-faire liberalism meant that the state did not intervene in labor disputes. The exceptions to this rule are few. Legislation about unions, industrial action and collective agreements was minimal. In the absence of state regulation, employers and unions had to establish the rules of the game themselves, sometimes with the state as a mediator. The unions in Nordic countries enjoyed more freedom from regulation than unions in any other part of the world. And eventually they became very strong by any comparison. They were the basis of Social Democracy and the welfare state.


So, freedom to organize and to act collectively in the labor market is the nucleus of the Swedish model. It was made possible because the Swedish liberals were in favour of the unions. In the formative period the liberals killed all attempts to regulate the unions as long as most workers were denied the right to vote. Broadly speaking, the same things happened in Denmark and Norway.


In Sweden today 70 to 80 per cent of all employees belong to unions, and perhaps 90 per cent are covered by union contracts. Collective laissez faire, that is government non-intervention, has promoted the integration of workers in society and in politics.


To put it shortly. American labor law has pushed American politics to the right. Swedish labor law has pushed Swedish politics to the left.


These facts mirror a conflict within liberalism. What is the proper relationship between employers and workers, capital and labor? What should be the role of the legislater? The issue has haunted liberals at least since the French revolution, when labor unions were outlawed together with the guilds. Many liberals have sided with the workers as the weaker party in the labor market and supported the unions as a means to a balance of power in the workplace. Others think that the freedom of contract of individual workers and employers must be respected as a fundamental principle of a liberal order. They see collective contracts and industrial action as a violation of both property rights and personal freedom. The power of this opinion in America proves in my view the strength of the Lockean tradition.


In Sweden the human rights tradition has been strikingly absent. Human rights became a constitutional issue only in the 1970s. John Locke and the so-called Law of Nature was never an inspiration in Sweden. German culture and philosophy was much more important. As a reformist movement Swedish liberalism was eclectic. I believe that we see again, in the conflicting views among liberals about trade unions, one more example of the early division within liberalism.


Thank you





tillbaka till arkivet